These stories are in-depth profiles of two of the four candidates running for the Omaha City Council’s District 4 seat. For coverage of other races check out The Reader’s 2021 city election hub.
“I want to be the voice of the people,” says Ben Cass, a 32-year-old software engineer who is running for office for the first time in the April city council primary. His priority is to address the structural needs of the city and ensure basic services — road maintenance, trash service, and snow removal — are being met for District 4 constituents.
Cass is a longtime volunteer with the Omaha Jitterbugs and also danced with The Moving Company at UNO. His love of the arts translates into a determination to support Omaha’s creative culture as part of a plan to attract and retain talent and improve the city’s economy. Cass also prioritizes investing in technology and adapting to automation to make Omaha more modern and competitive.
Cass is known as prodigy, entering college at age 12 and earning his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Bellevue University at 17. He also began working with the Nebraska Democratic party at an early age, and was elected as the Congressional District Chair for NE-02 in 2018.
Omaha needs to improve employment opportunities for the middle class and expand access to affordable housing in order to avoid “brain drain,” he says.
Another area where he sees inequity is snow removal. “I think a lot of people see the inequity … it takes a long time here in District 4, while in West Omaha everything is cleaned up fast. How can you get people on the bus having a giant mountain of snow? We have to do something and make it work.”
Cass said that he has lived in rental housing since he was a teenager, so he has seen firsthand the differences in tenant treatment, and is looking for solutions. “I live in a low-cost house. It is a family unit with divided floors, (a common) entrance and independent space. Some people who own their homes do that to have other income. I want to support that,” he says.
In addition, he believes that the city needs more senior housing as well as more inspections to ensure rental units are in good condition, and improve agreements between the tenant and the landlord.
Today many people who want to live in Omaha are forced to buy a car because of outdated and insufficient public transportation. “I think it’s a city-wide problem, especially when we talk about how we can get people back from a brain drain perspective,” he says. He added that the ORBT system can traverse 24th Street which would facilitate north-south transportation.
On the subject of “brain drain,” Cass hopes to leverage his engineering and business experience to design plans to get other companies to invest in Omaha, even remotely, and to improve the economy and make Omaha more attractive to young career people.
He wants to create a “climate action plan” in Omaha that consists of creating renewable, clean and friendly energy system such as the installation of solar panels, a project that would partner with OPPD.
Cass has made it clear that he is “simple to work with,” a man with solid ideas capable of working with committed people regardless of political affiliations. “I really believe that hyper-partisanship is toxic to our society as a whole,” he says.
The frustration of trying to communicate with local government authorities during the pandemic led Sarah Smolen to see how important it is for city council members to be more available to their consitutents. She did not feel that anyone was representing her. “I realized that our government is very inaccessible to people, and particularly our councillor. He didn’t seem really interested in doing his job and therefore, when all that got to a critical point, I decided right (then) if he didn’t do it, I’d do it myself,” she said.
Smolen is an English teacher who has lived in South Omaha for over 17 years. This is the first time she has run for office. By participating in city council, she hopes she will be able to address the priorities of the community.
One of the things she sees as a priority is to extend the City Council’s schedule so that people can express their ideas. “It can’t be just until 2 p.m., a lot of people are working at that time or they’re in school. Those aren’t hours for people to participate. We can extend the schedule, even on weekends,” she said. In addition, the documents that are issued should be available in different languages in order to make it easier for all people to understand what is happening in the community.
“There is a lot of cultural diversity in the community. We can include interpreters during sessions and sign language,” she said.
Smolen also plans to improve access to housing, seeing Omaha’s current situation as a crisis. She believes it is necessary to increase the number of affordable homes within the city. “We’re pushing in the legislature with a bill for tenant rights. The idea is that the law can be understood in the event of eviction. We also aim to eliminate discrimination based on income,” she said.
She said that thanks to a financing program, she was able to get her first home with her husband with a very low interest, and she wants to support such programs as she sees house prices rising in Omaha and many cannot afford to purchase their own home. “This is one of my priorities,” she said.
The city’s public transportation is also a topic to discuss. She proposes expanding the use of bike lanes and evaluating the possibility of extending bus lines east to west and from north to south to connect those without cars to more parts of the city. “Another part is to improve the sidewalks, they are too narrow, especially for someone in a wheelchair or a scooter. Some are broken and dangerous. So we have to widen the sidewalks,” she said.
Smolen said she supports the idea of lowering unemployment with community school programs. When it comes to four-year degrees she said, “I think now we are realizing that that is not always the best option and many times people spend a lot of time without being sure of what they want to do and then acquire a lot of student debt. (When they) enter the workforce, and there is already a mountain of debt. So schools are a good step in lowering the unemployment rate and promoting the economy,” she said. Smolen hopes to be the councillor who works for people and their needs.
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